A small group of business owners and concerned community members met with outgoing state Rep. Dan Flynn on Thursday morning at Sundance Hall in Canton, touring its more than 10,000 square feet of space and envisioning the “high-end honky tonk” as it was meant to be – filled with live music and smiling faces – as they expressed frustration with the continued closures of bars and other establishments deemed unsafe by Gov. Greg Abbott amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The dance hall was once, not so very long ago, a skating rink. But when the owner’s youngest daughter went off to college, Cindy Bass made a major financial decision, investing $1 million in renovating the rink into a shiny gathering space complete with a massive dance floor, open-air patio and three separate bars.
Bass paid hundreds of thousands in insurance, TABC fees and operating expenses up front, hoping to cover her bases and ensure that her customers would have a seamless experience gathering with friends and enjoying “some of the best music around.”
And, for a few weeks, things couldn’t have been any better.
Then came the pandemic.
“I was open for 11 weeks before I was shut down,” Bass said. “You are looking at the worst-case scenario in the state of Texas.”
She and Ryan Hanson, Gavin Whitaker, Jill Dutton and Anette O’Brien, from across East Texas, recently joined forces through Texans Unite for Business Equality, an organization with a mission to “bring back the equal opportunity to all Texas business owners that have been disenfranchised by arbitrary orders from a legislature that is sworn to serve all people.”
The organization, following Thursday’s tour, met in a round-table discussion with Flynn to voice their concerns regarding confusion about orders that allow only restaurants that earn less than 51% of their profits from alcohol sales to open for dine-in services while VFWs and businesses like the dance hall remain shuttered and struggling to stay afloat.
Through their discussion, Bass voiced frustration with the decisions of state leadership who she said decided it was safer for patrons to be crammed, elbow-to-elbow, at restaurant bars on a given night than for masked patrons to socially distance themselves in the ample space available at her dance hall.
“I have, for some reason, been made insignificant,” Bass said.
“Worse than that,” Hanson said. “You’ve been made dangerous.”
The Texans Unite For Business Equality group said they feel that institutions like Sundance Hall have been unfairly vilified and made a scapegoat for the spread of COVID-19.
“But 51% venues alone were not the catalyst for the June spike,” Hanson said.
During their round-table, they consulted Flynn about a variety of questions. How could they acquire the data the state uses to make its reopening decisions? Has the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, an over 100-page document that governs the state’s emergency powers, been misused by Gov. Abbott? When will 51% businesses receive new guidance or advice on reopening?
Emotions sometimes flared during the meeting, and Flynn’s recommendation to the group during those moments was to “stay away from personal issues,” and organize in order to determine what they had to do to reopen.
“What can be done today to get businesses back (open) tomorrow?” the group asked.
“This is the critical question,” they told Flynn. “Business owners that have been completely closed are hemorrhaging cash, livelihood and dreams. Every day the closure goes on, additional businesses are lost completely.”
They wanted to discuss the viability of the organization’s long-term goals, including immediate reform of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 so that it defines, more clearly, the parameters that constitute a disaster and the powers and length of powers in each instance.
Flynn said, in response, that while he was there “to listen to the people,” his best advice was to connect with larger lobbyist groups. As an outgoing representative, he explained, there was little more he could do.
Members of Texans Unite For Business Equality, however, said they weren’t done fighting.
For, as the website proudly proclaims, “Sundance Hall will not go quietly.”